THE BLOG

The Syrian Government Is Now a Vampire State Feeding Off Its Own People

05/11/2015 17:31 GMT | Updated 05/11/2016 09:12 GMT

The whirl and churn of the news cycle means that even cataclysmic events like the ever-widening war in Syria usually make only fleeting appearances.  Amazing, really, that a human catastrophe of this magnitude - a quarter of a million dead, a staggering two million (out of 22 million) injured, and 11 million uprooted from their homes - can so easily slip from our TV screens. Then again, it was probably the same during the Vietnam War ...

But whether or not it's news, the horror continues. Still experimenting with their trademark shock tactics, the Islamic State armed group have recently blown up captives they'd tied to ancient Roman columns at the Palmyra archaeological site, following this with fresh territorial gains in Homs province.

Meanwhile, Russia's sudden acceleration of military support for the Syrian government has seen a wave of new aerial attacks, with Russian forces conducting up to 60 air sorties a day, while cruise missiles have been fired from the Caspian Sea. Unsurprisingly, the Russian onslaught has given rise to multiple reports of civilian casualties, including with MSF hospitals apparently being hit. Russia's intervention comes after the US-led coalition has already conducted thousands of attacks in Syria (2,720 as at 3 November), with a worrying lack of information about how many civilians may have been killed or injured as a result (the USA's recent MSF hospital blunder in Kunduz in Afghanistan hardly instils much confidence).

And of course the Syrian government continues with its own bombardments - including with massive barrel bombs - of places like Aleppo and Daraa. Government barrel bombs alone have killed something like 9,000 people in the last 20 months (nearly all of them civilians), more than all those killed in Syria by Islamic State in the same period.

None of this is exactly unknown - it's just ... dispersed among deadeningly over-familiar news reports. There's something infinitely depressing about the way we get inured to hearing about this stuff.

Meanwhile, less talked about is the far more hidden horror of Syria's huge wave of abductions and "disappearances". A new Amnesty reportpaints an utterly chilling picture of tens of thousands of people (about 60,000) - protesters, journalists, anyone vaguely "oppositional" - kidnapped and held in wretched conditions in government prisons. A depraved criminal "economy" has emerged where money is extorted from the relatives of missing people who pay large bribes to try get their family members released, often without success.

One man, Khaled from Palmyra, has so far spent around $150,000 trying to get information about his three missing brothers, Mohammed, Na'im and As'ad, all picked up by the Syrian authorities in 2012. The latest news on any of them comes from this January, with a former detainee saying he saw Mohammed in Saydnya prison near Damascus. Meanwhile Khaled is now in exile in Turkey trying to earn the money to pay off his huge debts. He's sadly resigned to the situation, saying "When your brothers have been taken, and someone says he has information about them, you will follow him, even to find out a shred of information."

Another disappearance case concerns a prominent dentist (and former Syrian national chess player) called Rania al-Abbasi. She, her husband and all their six children have been disappeared from the Damascus suburb of Mashroua Dummer since March 2013. Amnesty has a "Write for Rights" campaign on Rania and her family here.

Such organised state gangsterism has apparently now taken such a hold in Syria that the Damascus government has become partly reliant on the revenues it produces. It's a clear example of a vampire state feeding off its own people.

Some of the armed opposition groups are racketeers as well. The journalist Patrick Cockburn recounts the story of a government soldier called Mohammed Diab who went back to his home village Rahiya in Idlib province to recover from a leg wound. The village was controlled by opposition forces, and so:

"Hearing that there was a wounded government soldier in the village, they took Diab hostage and held him for five months; they even sold his metal splint and gave him a piece of wood to strap to his leg instead. Finally, his family ransomed him for the equivalent of $1,000 but his leg had become infected and so he was back in hospital."

It's into this cauldron of hatred and violence that the UK government is apparently preparing to jump with its much-talked-about Commons vote on "military action" in Syria. UK bombing in Syria could easily make a disastrous situation even worse for Syria's beleaguered civilian population.